Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Program: Background and Issues for Congress–23 May, 2018

USCGC Polar Sea

The latest edition of the Congressional Research Service report on Coast Guard Polar Icebreakers, by Ronald O’Rourke, was published on 23 May, 2018. You can see it here. 

I have reproduced the summary immediately below.  

The Coast Guard polar icebreaker program is a program to acquire three new heavy polar icebreakers, to be followed years from now by the acquisition of up to three new medium polar icebreakers. The Coast Guard wants to begin construction of the first new heavy polar icebreaker in FY2019 and have it enter service in 2023. The polar icebreaker program has received about $359.6 million in acquisition funding through FY2018, including $300 million provided through the Navy’s shipbuilding account and $59.6 million provided through the Coast Guard’s acquisition account. The Coast Guard’s proposed FY2019 budget requests $750 million in Coast Guard acquisition funding for the program.

The acquisition cost of a new heavy polar icebreaker had earlier been estimated informally at roughly $1 billion, but the Coast Guard and Navy now believe that three heavy polar icebreakers could be acquired for a total cost of about $2.1 billion, or an average of about $700 million per ship. The first ship will cost more than the other two because it will incorporate design costs for the class and be at the start of the production learning curve for the class. An April 13, 2018, Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the polar icebreaker program states that the Coast Guard has reduced its estimated cost for the first heavy polar icebreaker to less than $900 million, which would imply an average cost of something more than $600 million each for the second and third icebreakers. When combined with the program’s $359.6 million in prior-year funding, the $750 million requested for FY2019 would fully fund the procurement of the first new heavy polar icebreaker and partially fund the procurement of the second.

The operational U.S. polar icebreaking fleet currently consists of one heavy polar icebreaker, Polar Star, and one medium polar icebreaker, Healy. In addition to Polar Star, the Coast Guard has a second heavy polar icebreaker, Polar Sea. Polar Sea, however, suffered an engine casualty in June 2010 and has been nonoperational since then. Polar Star and Polar Sea entered service in 1976 and 1978, respectively, and are now well beyond their originally intended 30-year service lives. The Coast Guard has used Polar Sea as a source of spare parts for keeping Polar Star operational.

A Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Mission Need Statement (MNS) approved in June 2013 states that “current requirements and future projections … indicate the Coast Guard will need to expand its icebreaking capacity, potentially requiring a fleet of up to six icebreakers (3 heavy and 3 medium) to adequately meet mission demands in the high latitudes….”

The current condition of the U.S. polar icebreaker fleet, the DHS MNS, and concerns among some observers about whether the United States is adequately investing in capabilities to carry out its responsibilities and defend its interests in the Arctic, have focused policymaker attention on the question of whether and when to acquire one or more new heavy polar icebreakers as replacements for Polar Star and Polar Sea.

On March 2, 2018, the U.S. Navy, in collaboration with the U.S. Coast Guard under the polar icebreaker integrated program office, released a request for proposal (RFP) for the advance procurement and detail design for the Coast Guard’s heavy polar icebreaker, with options for detail design and construction for up to three heavy polar icebreakers.

Issues for Congress for FY2019 for the polar icebreaker program include, inter alia, whether to approve, reject, or modify the Coast Guard’s FY2019 acquisition funding request; whether to use a contract with options or a block buy contract to acquire the ships; whether to continue providing at least some of the acquisition funding for the polar icebreaker program through the Navy’s shipbuilding account; and whether to procure heavy and medium polar icebreakers to a common basic design.

13 thoughts on “Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Program: Background and Issues for Congress–23 May, 2018

  1. Pingback: Report to Congress on U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Procurement, 23 May 2018 | Chuck Hill's CG Blog

      • The three medium icebreakers referred to in the article are the Swedish icebreaking AHTS vessels Tor Viking, Vidar Viking and Balder Viking. The “heavy” icebreaker that the CCG is reluctant to take is the Louisiana-built ABS A3 ice class Aiviq that has been laid up since Shell pulled out from Alaska.

        Click to access icebreaker-briefing-RESOLUTE-1.pdf

        As for the two Edison Chouest Polar Class 3 AHTS vessels you featured in your “icebreaker bargain” post some years ago, they were cancelled and reportedly scrapped on the slip.

        Just out of curiosity, I checked the LaShip shipyard from both Google Maps and Bing Maps, and the aerial photograph in Bing (but not in Google) shows what seems to be the deckhouse for one of these offshore icebreakers. However, I haven’t been able to date the photographs, but the one in Bing appears to be newer.

  2. When the Navy turned over all icebreakers to the USCG, there were about 7(?) WAGBs in commission, and the CG quickly started decommisioning some, because of no operational need for so many…

    I’m curious why suddenly the jump from 2-3 WAGBs to 6 is seen as the necessary amount?? I’m guessing the heavy icebreakers will continue the McMurdo resupply support role, and the mediums will support science research in the Arctic.

    My big question, though, is this: Will the three medium icebreakers take over for the WHECs and WMECs assigned to District 17, kind-of as a combination medium icebreaker and “arctic cutter?” With three of them, they could keep one in Kodiak to replace Alex Haley…

    • “Quickly” in this case seemed to be about 10 years (from 1966 to mid-1970s) and coincided with the commissioning of the Polar class which had about twice the displacement of the Wind class. Keep in mind that those 1940s icebreakers were about as outdated and technically obsolete as the Polar Star is now. Still, it’s true that the number of hulls went down and, if I’m not mistaken, the USCG had just two operational polar-capable icebreakers between the late 1980s and 1999 when Healy was commissioned. Just like today…

      I wouldn’t aim for a compromise vessel that combines both medium icebreaking and extensive open water operations. You’ll just end up with a ship that is just as big and powerful as a heavy, but has slightly less efficient icebreaking bow, and it still won’t be good in open water. A double-acting design could work but then the USCG would have to learn a new way of operating an icebreaker…

      • That’s true, Tups. I guess my memory was a little off. I do remember they decommed Eastwind within a year or two of getting the 4 “used” USN Wind-class in 1966. So, it looks like there was no need for 7 back then, but they did keep 6 operating for 10 years, and two of them kept in commission until the 1980s!

        I wonder where the Wind-class would fit compared to the two proposed levels of Icebreakers, Heavy or Medium?

      • Bill, I am not sure the Wind class would even qualify as medium icebreakers, since they only had 12,000 HP. The Glacier had 21,000 so would presume a medium, Healy is classified as medium at 22.4 MW (just over 30,000 HP even though it made it unescorted to the North Pole. The Polar Star has 75,000HP.

        I do think we could make a case that sending two 30,000 HP icebreakers to Antarctica might serve us better than one 75,000 HP breaker. After all we used to do this with the Wind Class.

      • No problem, Bill.

        I have never liked the USCG’s way of classifying icebreakers based on their propulsion power in that chart. However, more recently I have seen them referring to performance (breaking 4.5 ft (medium) or 6 ft (heavy) thick level ice at a speed of 3 knots) which is far more reasonable as it also takes into account the actual design of the vessel.

        The problem with power is that it’s just one factor in the icebreaking performance equation. I’d rather talk about thrust (more precisely net thrust, which is propeller thrust minus open water resistance, i.e. the thrust available for overcoming added resistance from icebreaking) which is a function of not only power, but also number of propulsors, propeller diameter etc. Thus, by tweaking the other parameters you can extract a lot more thrust (= performance) from the propulsion system without increasing the power plant rating. Furthermore, a well-designed icebreaker requires less power to achieve the same operational icebreaking capability due to lower added resistance from ice. Of course, you can go to the extremes with certain special bow types, achieving the same icebreaking capability as the nuclear-powered icebreakers with a medium icebreaker power level, but you wouldn’t want to sail across the Pacific in one of those…

      • Even the most powerful nuclear-powered icebreakers top at about 20 knots – a fixed-pitch propeller designed to provide maximum thrust at 2-3 knots won’t work well at higher speeds (and vice versa).

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